New York Times bestselling author Lee Smith offers her signature mix of wit and heartbreak, as well as her “unerring ear for the lyrical and the down and dirty,” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) in this superb collection of stories.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Lee Smith was born in Grundy, VA. She is author of ten novels and four story collections.She is a winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, and member of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Sarah can't keep her mind on the spoons. So she starts over, counting right out loud, "One, two, three, four," pursing her lips in that way she has, fitting each newly polished spoon carefully into its allotted space in the big mahogany silver chest. Thirty-six spoons, all accounted for. Normally this is the kind of job Sarah just loves, but today it's so hot,
hotter than the hinges of hell in here, and she is distracted because Gladiola Rolette, who's polishing the spoons and handing them over to her one by one, will not shut up, not for a single minute. Gradiola beats all! She does not seem to understand that it's her fault it's so hot in here, that she should have called a repairman the instant the air conditioner
went on the blink. Gladiola does not even seem to understand that it's her fault Sarah has to count the silver in the first place. But Gladiola just let it all go during the last six months of Daddy's illness, forks and spoons jumbled up together, the butter knives scattered to the four winds. And furthermore, it is perfectly clear that Gladiola has been giving her trashy family the entire run of this house.
Sarah has seen the signs everywhere--unfiltered cigarette butts in the flower beds, a beer can stuck in a planter on the portico, a lipstick smudge on the drinking glass in the downstairs bathroom--why, even the furniture has been rearranged! Gladiola herself would never think of doing such a thing. But her daughters, both of them hussies, would. They've got ideas, Gladiola's girls. Sarah has watched them grow up.
Right now Roxanne, the younger one, could not possibly be a day over seventeen but could pass for thirty, she looks so cheap and jaded with that spiky black hair and all those holes in her ears. Gladiola's older daughter, Missy, is down in Atlanta getting certified to be a massage therapist, or so
she says. A massage therapist, ha! Sarah can just imagine. Of course Missy has already had one baby out of wedlock, that fat little girl out there digging in the mint bed right now with a spoon. Probably a silver soup spoon, Sarah would not be one bit surprised.
Little Bonnie comes to work with Gladiola every day, and eats everything in the house. This is a pure fact. Sarah had no idea until she came back to bury Daddy and stayed on to clean out this house. Somebody had to! Oh, a lot has been going on here that Sarah didn't know anything about. These Rolettes have practically taken over.
But of course it is all Hubert's fault. Hubert is Sarah's brother, the district attorney, a rumpled, distracted man. All Hubert cares about is his job, and all his northern egghead wife, Mickey, cares about is taking classes at the community college, where she earns degree after degree, or claims to. So Hubert was perfectly happy to hire as many Rolettes as it took and close his eyes to the havoc they wrought, just as long as everybody stayed out of his hair. Hubert! Hubert has no standards.
Sarah practically slams the knives into the silver chest, thinking of Hubert, Hubert who talked so mean to her the last time she came home and tried to make some reasonable suggestions about what to do with Daddy. Hubert wears wrinkled suits and horn-rimmed glasses way down on the end of his nose. He looked at her over the rims. "Hell, Sarah," he said, "Dad's fine. Just leave him alone. He likes to pile newspapers all over the house, he likes to have Gladiola's granddaughter around, it keeps him company. He likes to stay up and watch the talk shows and then sleep until noon, so what's the harm in it?"
"People ought to get up in the mornings," Sarah said. "A regular schedule never hurt anybody." Sarah herself has not slept past seven a.m. in twenty years. She eats one-half cup of bran cereal with banana for breakfast every morning of her life.
Gladiola, on the other hand, fed her father Pop-Tarts and instant grits. This is a fact. Pop-Tarts and grits! Lord knows what kind of shape his bowels were in by the time of his death; Sarah did not discuss this with Hubert.
But she did bring up the hat. "I just don't think we ought to let him go around looking like that," she said.
Hubert laughed. "Hell, he's eighty-five years old. I think he ought to wear whatever damn kind of a hat he wants to."
So Hubert had destroyed her influence with Daddy, Hubert having his way as usual, Hubert who was possibly even more spoiled than Ashley, God rest her soul, however.
Suddenly Sarah feels awful.
She sits down abruptly on a Chippendale chair at the dining room table. She's so hot! Maybe it's a hot flash, maybe she's getting the change of life. "Is there any ice tea?" she asks Gladiola, who runs to get it.
Thank God! There ought to be iced tea in any decent household in the summertime of course, anybody knows that. Mama was nuts on the subject. And among the three children, Sarah is the only one like Mama, that soft pretty woman Sarah can hardly remember right now, sweet
Mama who died of a racing heart twelve years ago.
Sarah left work the minute she got the message, and drove all night long to get home in time to see to every detail of Mama's funeral. Then she volunteered to stay home to take care of Daddy, who was just lost withoutMama, it was really the saddest thing. You can't imagine
how he carried on.
But instead, here was Ashley back from California, flat broke, to recuperate from the second of her two divorces.
So Sarah stayed on in Richmond, where she is a buyer for the housewares section of Miller and Rhoads, a perfectly elegant downtown department store with branches in all the suburbs. In Richmond, Sarah has her book group, her bridge club, and a whole host of lovely friends. To be perfectly honest, Sarah was glad to stay in Richmond, in her new condominium with its eggshell walls and its silk ficus in the foyer. Daddy was disorderly and always had been, not to mention his drinking. Drunk and disorderly, ha!
Come to think of it, they were all disorderly--Daddy, Hubert, and Ashley--not to mention all of Hubert's and Ashley's spouses and children, a great straggling parade which Sarah loses track of. Lost, Sarah corrects herself. Which she has lost track of, as Ashley herself is lost.
Poor Ashley wasn't even married to the man who caused her last, fatal pregnancy. At the time, she wasn't married at all, and he was married to somebody else. But she was sure
he would marry her, Ashley had confided to Sarah that summer morning nine years ago. They were sitting in the kitchen after breakfast, drinking coffee. It was already hot.
Mama's climbing rose was blooming profusely all over the trellis. Sarah remembers that morning like it was yesterday. Ashley leaned forward, so excited that spots of color stained
her porcelain cheeks. She looked like a person running a fever.She spilled coffee on her flowered robe.
"He loves me so much," she said. "You can't imagine." Two weeks later she was dead of an ectopic pregnancy.
Sarah drinks her iced tea. She finishes with the knives: thirty-six of them, all accounted for. She smiles at Gladiola. "There now," she says.
Gladiola grins back. She's a fat, foolish woman, poor white trash if Sarah ever saw it, of course up here in the mountains this is common. People spill over from one social class into another all the time--it's hard to know who's nice. This is not true in Richmond, where the help is black and a proper distance can be maintained.
Sarah has been absent from her job at Miller and Rhoads for five days now, but she will be back on Monday. She can't afford to stay any longer. As it is, they will begin carrying three new lines of china during her absence, all of them informal: Pietri, heavy painted pottery from Italy, covered with fanciful animals and fish; Provence, oversize French china patterned in wild flowers; and Hacienda-Ware from the Southwest, all earth colors
(terra-cotta, sagebrush, sunset, and dawn, ha!), which looks like hell in Sarah's opinion. All of it looks like hell. So does that new girl they've hired to "help" Sarah with the expanded china department, a girl with rat's-nest hair and deadwhite makeup and some kind of
a degree in "design." Sarah knows she will hate everything this girl likes.
What Sarah loves with all her heart is her mother's delicate bone china right over there in the breakfront, china so thin you can practically see through it. It will just kill her to split up the set with Hubert, who is totally unable to appreciate it. Well, a salad fork is missing, no surprise. Also two butter knives--no, three butter knives!
Out the window, Sarah sees Everett Sharp drive past in his little green car. Everett Sharp is the undertaker who buried Daddy two days ago. Sarah had lost touch with him since their high school days, but she was pleasantly surprised by his manner: respectful, attentive, but not unctuous. Not pushy. Everett Sharp is a tall, thin balding man, with a red beard and a high potbelly. Sarah has to start over on the soup spoons.
"Let's us stop for lunch now and I'll tell you about the wedding," Gladiola says. Gladiola knows how to get Sarah's attention.
"What wedding?" Sarah is a fool for weddings. She stops counting and wipes her face with a napkin. Actually, she's so hot, she's glad to stop for a while.
"Let's us go on in the kitchen and I'll tell you," Gladiola says.
Sarah closes the lid of the silver chest and goes to sit in the old kitchen rocker while Gladiola makes pimiento cheese sandwiches, Sarah's favorite since childhood.
"Well, you knew Roxanne was fixing to get married," Gladiola begins.
Sarah stares at her. "You mean Missy," she says automatically. It's a shame how Gladiola's face has fallen in like spoonbread around her mouth. She used to be a pretty woman.
"No ma'am," Gladiola answers emphatically. "I mean Roxanne."
"But Roxanne is only seventeen," Sarah says. "Isn't that so?"
"Yes ma'am," Gladiola says. "But can't nobody do a thing with Roxanne once she takes it in her head to do something. She's been like that ever since she was a little girl, ever since she was Bonnie's age."
As if on cue, Bonnie comes tracking dirt across the clean kitchen floor on her way to the sun porch, where she turns on the TV. Sarah sighs, bites her lip, says nothing. It is
possible to say too much, she knows this, and really this pimiento cheese is very good.
"Tell me about the wedding," she reminds Gladiola.
"Well, I don't know where Roxanne got this idea, mind you, but she took it into her head that she just had to have a blue wedding."
Gladiola hands Sarah another sandwich, then sits down and grins at her. "A blue wedding! All blue! See, blue is Roxanne's favorite color, always has been, why last year
when she was head majorette she forced them to let her make herself a new uniform, blue with gold trim instead of gold with blue."
"Do you mean to tell me that Roxanne had a blue wedding dress?" Sarah fans her face with a copy of Time magazine.
"Ordered it," Gladiola corrects her. "We ordered everything through Judy's Smarte Shoppe. You know Judy is real reliable, so usually everything comes in right when she
says it will. We ordered a baby-blue wedding dress and veil, and baby-blue tuxedos for Sean and his brother and the two groomsmen, and three baby-blue dresses with an
Empire waist and puff sleeves for the bridesmaids."
"My goodness!" It is all Sarah can think to say.
"But then Roxanne and Tammy--that's her best friend, Tammy Bird--had a big falling-out," Gladiola goes on, "and so Tammy said she wasn't going to be in the wedding after all, and Roxanne said that was fine with her, for Tammy not to be in the wedding, and so Roxanne called Judy up and canceled Tammy's dress. But Judy happened to be out sick that day, well, actually, she was over at Orange County Hospital getting her tubes tied and her mother was
keeping the store for her. You know everybody thinks she's got Alzheimer's."
"Mrs. Dewberry," Gladiola says. "Judy's mother. But I don't think she's got it. I think everybody just says that because it's popular."
"What is?" Sarah manages to ask.
"Alzheimer's," Gladiola says. "That's one of those diseases nobody ever heard of until it got popular, and now everybody's got it, like that other one, you know the one I mean, the one where you diet until you die, nobody ever heard of that one until it got popular, either."
"Anorexia," Sarah says weakly.
"Whatever," Gladiola says. She lights a cigarette.
"The wedding," Sarah says.
"Well, so Judy's mother went and canceled the whole order, is what she did, instead of just the one dress, and forgot to say anything about this to Judy, so when the
Thursday before the wedding comes and Roxanne's order doesn't come in, Judy calls them up. It's this company in New Jersey."
"Can I have a Coke?" Little Bonnie plants herself in front of Gladiola, but Sarah stands up and gets it herself out of the refrigerator. She gives it to Bonnie, then pushes her back out on the sun porch, where All My Children is on TV. Sometimes Sarah actually watches that show herself, back home in Richmond on her rare days off, of course she'd never admit it to a soul.
"What about the wedding?" Sarah asks when she returns.
"They couldn't have it," Gladiola says. "Judy had to reorder everything."
"Rut I would have thought that since the church was already reserved, I would imagine, and the minister all lined up, and the invitations sent, for heaven's sake..." Horror crosses Sarah's face. "I would have thought that they would hold the wedding regardless, and just find something else to wear. Perhaps something more traditional," she adds hopefully.
"Not on your life!" Gladiola laughs. "Roxanne had her heart set on a blue wedding." Gladiola shakes her head. She acts like it was all out of her hands, every bit of it, like sue is powerless in the world. But Gladiola was the Mother of the Bride! Sarah cannot say a word, she just stares at Gladiola, who goes right on with the story. "Well, Preacher
Sizemore said he could marry them anytime they took a notion to do it, so they set another date, and Judy reordered everything, and we got on the telephone and called up everybody we could think of, and so we put it off. But then, do you know what those rascals done?"
"Roxanne and Sean."
"What? What did they do?" Sarah cannot imagine.
"They went ahead and moved in together just like they had gone and gotten married after all! I was mad as fire. But there wasn't nothing I could do of course, you can't do a thing with Roxanne, and they already had this trailer that Sean's uncle had gave them after he built himself a new brick home out on the Bluefield road. It's got an aboveground swimming pool," Gladiola says, "which I think are so ugly."
Sarah unbuttons the top two buttons of her blouse and rolls up the sleeves. " Then what?
"Well, so they move into this trailer, which is already decorated real cute, and Sean buys them a new car, which he's real proud of, that he bought cheap in a bankruptcy auction. A black Trans Am, they were both crazy about that car."
"How old is Sean?" Sarah asks.
"Nineteen," says Gladiola. "So anyway, they get all moved in together, and the wedding is set for two months off, and then Roxanne signs up for that nursing program at Mountain Tech. You know she was always so smart."
Sarah nods. Too smart for her own good, is what Sarah thinks.
"Well, this is when the trouble really starts." Gladiola lights another cigarette. "Sean's a real jealous person, it tur...
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